Friday, September 20, 2013

Some Reflections on Sketchpacking, and a Photolog of My Sketches from My China Trip

I just returned from a 2-week trip to China (Beijing and Xi'an) a few days ago. It will take a while before I scan all my sketches and put them up, but I did take some photographs of my drawings along the way to show that I've "been there, drawn that!"

I brought a lot of materials on my trip and had big ambitions: Complete at least 1 sketchbook with nicely finished drawings that I can publish; keep a travelogue - no, two! - one written nicely with a calligraphy pen, another for my random scribbles, to be organized later into proper writing/typing. I spent a lot of money on materials and gear specially selected for the trip too - Pitt pens, camera pouch, watercolour box, other pens... But in the end, my great ambitions had to adapt and change like my itinerary, and give way to the practicalities of travel. It turned out that this trip - far from being one where I would create great art for publication - was one where I would learn much about myself and my travel habits, and one of the biggest lessons I would learn was the reality of the wise adage: LESS IS MORE.

One doesn't need a lot to create good art. Take my friend James, for example, who took half a year off to travel and sketch the world. His kit is minimal, but his works are many and admirable. I can't wait till he publishes his travel sketches (I hope he does!). Having a small kit helps you focus on drawing rather than fussing about what to use. As one artist said, "I find limitations liberating." I tend to want to do too many things when I travel (for this trip, I wanted to see many things, try my hand at travel writing, take photos, take videos, sketch, meet up with family and friends...). After all, I'm paying that much to go overseas to see and experience a different place. There's so much to see and do! But sketching is something that requires you to slow down, which might mean having to forgo seeing some things you would've liked to. Prioritizing and flexibility is thus necessary, unless you can spare the time (and money) to stay longer and take it slower. Not all of us have that luxury.

During my trip, there were those who saw me drawing and remarked, "Why not just take a photograph?" We sketchers hear that from time to time, and sometimes I'm tempted to retort, "Because I can (and you can't)." But there is a deeper and far better reason why we do it. You see, we experience the place through sketching. When you sketch, you take time to observe, to soak in the environment, to experience the sights, the colours, the smells, the sounds - something no photograph nor video can reproduce. You become connected to the place at that moment in time, and your impressions, feelings, thoughts, get captured on paper forever. And when you look back at your sketchbook, you are there at that place again. That is why we sketch on-location, even though I sometimes have no choice but to sketch from photos (such as when I'm on a group tour where nobody will wait for me). And no matter what people say about you being crazy sketching everything everywhere, or about why you don't just take a photo, they too will enjoy looking at your sketchbook when it is done, if they are not already enjoying observing you as you transform a blank sheet of paper into a work of art. But all this is possible only if you spend time in a place, and allow it to make an impression on you, which rushing through with cameras clicking never can.

On this trip, I didn't manage to draw as much as I had hoped. Some of the more finished pieces which I completed on-site were done when I split from my travel buddies, but at other times they were kind and patient enough to wait for me (including the time when I took 2 solid hours to draw the Forbidden City). Neither was I able to keep 2 travelogues. I managed one, but barely: it took me the whole 7-hours' flight back to catch up on 5 days of backlog, and I still had a day's journaling left to do, not counting my reflections from the trip! Sketching and writing were hard work! I slept later than my buddies every night updating my sketchbook and travelogue. But in the end, it's all worth it. You just need to know your limits and keep everything in balance.

Alright, I think I have rambled on long enough. Here are the photos for now. The scans will come later.

Waiting at Changi Airport

We took Malaysia Airlines, not Tiger. This was before our plane arrived at the gate.

The plane from Singapore to KL was pretty small. We switched to a larger one for the flight to Beijing.

The worship leader was drawn from a photograph.

First meals in Beijing

Arrow Tower of Zhenngyangmen, Bejing

Statue at Mao Zedong's Mausoleum

National Centre for Peforming Arts
Otherwise known as "Giant Egg"

Tiananmen - Gate of Heavenly Peace
Repainting works going on for National Day on 1 Oct

Forbidden City as seen from Jingshan Park

Taihedian - Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City

Imperial Clocks Collection

Imperial Jade Seal

Cypress tree in the Forbidden City


CCTV Tower
Also called "Big Underpants" because it looks like 2 legs squatting

My niece looks on as I add wash at night

Ornamental pillar at the Sacred Way, 13 Ming Tombs

The Sacred Way (or Spirit Way / Divine Way)

General statue at the Sacred Way

Stele Pavilion of Divine Merits and Sacred Virtue of Changling


Emperor Yongle

Suzhou Street in the Summer Palace

Long Corridor in the Summer Palace

Nanhu Island

Ruins in the Old Summer Palace

Great Wall at Mutianyu

Lunch on the high-speed train to Xi'an

The Great Mosque at Xi'an

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Altar of Heaven Park, Bejing

Stone Boat at the Altar of the Sun Park, Beijing

Our plane back from Beijing. The flight was delayed 7 hours.

I used about 80 pages of my sketchbook (including pages for tickets, brochures, and receipts. It's probably the most sketching I've done for any trip so far.

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